Some stories are worth revisiting and updating. Some changes since last year.
Wait. Maybe I’m not supposed to say that. I know some people aren’t happy about Sinterklaas; so, wishing people to be happy about something that more and more folks don’t like may not be politically correct. Culturally, speaking. Maybe “happy” isn’t the right word.
What should it be? Merry? Joyful? Oy!
This is getting complicated. It’s hard to merry about holidays IN the U.S. much less one that isn’t recognized in the States. When I say recognized I don’t mean “not acknowledged,” I mean recognized as, “I got no idea what you’re talking about.” Like, what on earth IS this Sinterklaas-thing to be happy, or merry, or emotional about?
So, best I can do…for simplicity sake, is to explain Sinterklaas to you as it was explained to me and, for kicks and giggles, let you experience the event as did I. Fair?
The Americanization of Sinter
Ok. Brief cross-cultural summary:
Sinterklaas is a Dutch holiday where St. Nickolas brings toys to children, much like his sound-a-like American offshoot. (Santa Claus is said to have landed his sleigh in the U.S. through the port of New Amsterdam, which — like many things European — went through a name change in Ellis Island. “New Amsterdam” became New “York,” and Sinter became Santa.) Instead of Dec. 25, Sintkerklass’ night of giving is December 5, spilling into a climactic celebration on December 6.
Whereas Santa is accompanied by reindeer, St. Nick’s aide-de-camp is a young man named Piet (that’s “Pete,” to the New York yankees). According to legend, St. Nick and Piet met in Spain and formed a Medieval partnership much like latter-day companions Cisco and Pancho, Kemosabee and Tonto, peanut butter and chocolate. Sinter & Piet wear bright clothing: St. Nick in traditional red, as you may imagine; Piet dons vibrant blue capped by a plumed black tam.
LEARN MORE: The Legend of Sinterklaas
St. Nick provides the gift; Piet delivers. That means it’s Piet who goes down the chimney and comes out covered in ashes and soot. That soot adheres to Piet’s skin partly accounts for his blackened countenance. The other factor is that Piet is a Moor, the dark-skinned people from Spain, of the lineage of Hannibal, the military genius from Tunis, North Africa. For one of these reasons, or combination, Piet’s full handle is Zwarte Pieten, meaning Black Peter. (Perhaps in the New Amsterdam phone book you can find him under Peter Schwarz or Peter Black.)
There is hubbub in Holland today about Sinterklaas. It has to do with Piet’s full name and whether his presence is counterproductive. Not Piet himself, but how Piet comes across. How he’s interpreted.
LEARN MORE: The Black Pete Debate
That Old Black Greasepaint…
There are not many Peter Blacks living in Amsterdam, however, Zwarte Piet is ubiquitous. Just as Sinterklaas has historical, social and, yes,spiritual significance, the Dutch have leveraged this tale far from its origins into a commercial enterprise. And because there are there are few people like Piet in Holland, Moor or less, in order for Piet to be a commercial spokesman in film, TV, print ads and personal appearances it is necessary for the pale-skinned Dutchfolk (often female) to don Moorish makeup and parade around town as Piet. Makes sense. Seems harmless. Shakespeare darkened up for Othello (though there are tales he did so to finally uncloset his ethnic ancestry.)
Lest we forget Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles were lauded for their stage and cinematic portrayals in burnt cork without much ado (between Paul Robeson. James Earl and Larry Fishburne turns). And that celebrated Negro entertainer Bert Williams wasn’t allowed to perform except in ebony greasepaint.
Happy Holland Daze
The above tale is a shortened version of what I learned when “introduced” to Piet in November 1999: my first trip to Europe, my first trip off the North American continent. The trip for which I got my first passport and was transported into another time. Into the corners of the windmills of my mind.
My improv troupe was on tour to perform in two cities in Holland. I’d been told something about this Santa Claus-thing we’d be arriving in the middle of. Nothing about Piet, just this a big exciting Holland days festival. I felt like a kid at Christmas. The closest I’d ever been to Holland was when our high school band marched the Holland, Michigan tulip festival. Now, I’m like Stevie Wonder in New York: Holland, just like I pictured it…tulips, wooden shoes, windmills.
As we disembark and head for baggage, the terminal is bright, PLUS decorated for the holidays. I’m doing the Mary Tyler Moore-with-the-spinning-hat-in-Minneapolis-thing when I see…a small black doll hanging from the ceiling in a fast food restaurant.
There ya go, Ma My first vision of Holland is not a tiptoe through the tulips. My first vision of Holland is a black doll hanged by a Christmas bulb hook.
Welcome to Amsterdam.
I must have stopped in my tracks, but the world spun.
“You kids don’t ever want to get in Dutch,” Dad use to say. Fine time to tell me.
I discover the black figure was Piet. The plume did not look like a plume.
I like to live in Amer-ri-ca.
Piet the Ubiquitous
Piet was every where…display windows, newspaper ads, McDonalds counters. Ronald McPiet! The “Family Affair” TV show opening credits became The Pete Kaleidoscope…Buffy, Jody, Uncle Bill, Mr. French! MOMMY, I wanna go home! NOW! BEFORE we exit the terminal…for I am certain once we step outside the terminal to catch the limo to the hotel, our driver will be Rod Serling, saying, “Welcome to the Zwarta Zone.”
I must have stopped in my tracks.
Our host immediately saw my discomfort. My reaction was unsettling for he had not considered the impact a hanging Piet holiday decoration would have on a black male from the United States. En route to the hotel he voluntarily shared the history I have shared above, apologized for unintentional impression my vision may have implied, and assured me I was safe. It was awkward, but sincere. In that context I mellowed.
I believe my Anglo colleagues (okay, the white folk in the troupe) were more upset for me than I was. Actually, I had been in scarier “I’m-the-only-black-man-in-town” situations travelling with them in the States; and there were others to come in subsequent years. In such circumstances, you develop an urban radar. Emotional discretion is advised. This, I learned from Sidney Poitier as the falsely-arrested Virgil Tibbs in the film version of “In the Heat of The Night.”
So, I reserved Militant Me for other occasions. Stateside. The other side of Customs. At the moment, there was no need to protest.No march to the consulate. Venting hashtags had not been in”vented.” Frankly, once our host explained the background, while the story chilled me, it also evoked great mirth and intrigue. In fact, I created a game for myself. Had there been hashtags, I’d have called it: #Hunting For Piet. The photo safaris were solitary. or momentary in group settings, to sate my warped sense of humor. Welcome to the dark side of self-preservation; protection for unpredictable moments of rage or melancholy.
I’m Ready for My Close-Up
During our week in Holland, Piet was inescapable. Piet was in bars, parades, store windows. A Piet documentary came on TV while I was trying to not get a second-hand high in my hotel room from the cannabis smoke that wafted up from the legalized hookah cafe next door (or was perhaps from the smoking on the non-smoking floor below). There was a Marching Piet New Orleans Jazz band in the mall.
My only personal discomfort was the afternoon I stepped out of my hotel and smack dab into a crowded Piet-za Party leaving the pub next door. A Max Factored blonde spied me. In a effort, I think, to apologize for being caught red-faced in blackface, she attempted an inebriated lip lock. ‘scuse me, while I kiss this guy! Accordingly, I added an N to the last syllable of Amster-. Anyone I EVER tried to kiss while drinking, forgive me.
Surreality gave way to absurdity whenever black face encountered black-face. Nothing speaks intrigue more than silence nothing when eyeball-to-eyeball with guilt. Somewhere between hand in the cookie jar and giving the speech naked. Excuse me, Mr. DeMille, my Kiwi is showing.
And the Piet Goes On
As mentioned, in recent years there’s been a maelstrom of commentary on both sides of the Atlantic whether Piet should be retired: That these depictions are racist;that Piet is past his prime. But that’s not what this tale is about — the Dutch struggle of what to do with Zwarte Pieten. If anyone tries to imply otherwise, I’ll be hanged. My encounter with Piet was educational,as honest racial and cultural encounters ought be.
From some of my reading, Piet is no shuck-and-jive, dull-witted sidekick as commercialized Americans of African descent historically been have been depicted in the States. Or Holland. Piet is no Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best or J.J.Evans. Piet, historically, was dignified and classy.
LEARN MORE: The Continuing Evolution of Zwarte Piet
Given the increasingly subtle and not subtle, sophisticated and blatant exhibitions of racism in my country (you know: “post-racial America since 2008”), we must admit that we can take down all the symbols and legislate all HR training we want, but false racist superiority and retribution will still linger in the heart. We have our own crosses to…bear. (Or is “bare” suddenly more appropriate.)
On the other hand, for anyone curious about the potential impact of such cross-cultural depictions upon an individual, this tale is an illustration. It’s also for those wondering how to respond when encountering a truly repentant offender.
Meanwhile, my encounters with Zwarte Pieten did not remain in Amsterdam. Telling the story to the wife-I-left-behind would be incomplete without visuals. Though I had photos and postcards, I wanted to bring a tangible piece of Piet with me for enhancement. However, I was self-conscious asking for a souvenir. I certainly was not going to purchase a Black man for show-and-tell…mostly because I didn’t trust my temperament explaining the stories through Customs or elsewhere. So, my photos of statues would suffice. I couldn’t wait for the film — yes, film — to be developed.
While waiting,a few weeks later, I was browsing the Christmas section of a local Chicago bookstore — one of the overstuffed neighborhood shops, not a chain — and stumbled across a book called “Santa and Pete.” Two weeks before I’d never heard of the guy, now he’s stalking me across the sea! That darn Piet!
“Santa and Pete” was written by Christopher Paul Moore and Pamela Johnson the year before my Amsterdam trip. It’s based on Moore’s family experiences: a young black kid in NYC who learns new respect for himself and history from the stories his grandfather tells…about St. Nick and Piet. The book is now in our Christmas library that’s pulled out each December. And, of course, a movie. With James Earl.
There’s another piece of Piet that remains with me. Just before December 25 of ’99. weeks after we got back, a box came from California from one of my touring colleagues. A gift. From Amsterdam. She’d seen me amused by it in the mall. It’s a Piet hand puppet. Each Christmas, we talk and I place him on our tree. Place him. One hanging is enough.
More Christmas MEMos and Wonderings